Beth is the Senior Vice President of Global & Internal Communications for a consumer product company. “As a title it does not roll off the tongue,” Beth says. “But they wouldn’t let me do Communications Guru.”
Beth is fun, a bit self-deprecating (“that’s my British wit,” she always says) and has an incredible work ethic. She knows the business of communication deeply and is known as a leader in her domain – she serves on external panels and is constantly being asked to speak at innovation conferences. Beth is the kind of boss you brag about: emotionally intelligent, personable, getting you to think you can stretch yourself and giving you all the credit when you do.
Jeremy, The CEO, thinks Beth is terrific. “I want her to be more visible. I actually want to bring her onto my Executive Committee. We are dying for the comms experience, and bringing another qualified woman into the group would be fantastic. But Beth is too narrow. I haven’t seen her think in a broad and strategic way, about the business, not just the comms solution. I’ve also noticed that she shies away from new ideas that she doesn’t get immediately. For Beth to advance she needs to get out of her comfort zone.”
All of us have a tendency to fall into our routines – it’s a natural and efficient way to work. You can’t get anything done if you are constantly reinventing yourself. You have developed your skills and talents over 20, 30 years. You have gotten a lot of positive reinforcement for being successful with these attributes. They don’t just feel “comfortable” to you, they feel like the most natural, right thing in the world.
Beth had all sorts of good reasons for being in her comfort zone. No time to reflect and take stock. The feeling that her existing expertise is what made her successful. (In fact, a good signal that you are in your comfort zone is that when multiple people ask you to get out of your comfort zone you defend your right to be there.)
For your growth as a professional, you need to develop strategies that will lead you out of your comfort zone so you can grow. Try these: Commit to being uncomfortable; practice new skills; create opportunities that will not-so-gently nudge you into the abyss.
Commit to being uncomfortable. Getting out of your comfort zone is, um, uncomfortable. Sounds obvious, but in the heat of the moment that discomfort is what tells you to do what you have always done rather than try something new. That is the single thing that impedes your progress. Embracing discomfort will free you up to do something different, something that feels unnatural.
Beth realized she felt uncomfortable whenever she was called upon to be a “business leader” rather than a “functional leader.” She had grown up in comms as a sort of consultant: she did impeccable research and left the decision to “the business.” That habit made her shy away from the strategic and broad general manager thinking the CEO wanted to see her do now. “It’s like I almost go blank. There is this sense inside of me that I shouldn’t be making that decision, someone else should. So it’s easy and, yes, much more comfortable, to busy myself with the other things I have to do and wait to see what others will say. Coming out with a strong point of view on something first feels really weird.” Success! We found her point of discomfort.
Practice new skills. Congratulations, you’re uncomfortable. Now what? Here is where a little planning comes into play. You have to imagine the unnatural act you will perform in the face of that discomfort. Breaking it up into little pieces helps.
For Beth, that meant that the next time the CEO or Chief Strategy Officer asked for opinions from her and some of her peers, she would feel the discomfort. Then, she would stop everything else and just focus on the request for 30 minutes. She would envision running the business as a whole and making a decision, not a recommendation. She would formulate and write down an answer (“Luckily I’ve learned to be a fast writer over the years,” Beth said.) That’s good – creating a little oasis of comfort around you helps you do uncomfortable things. Finally, she would bounce her thoughts off of a close colleague to get input and validation.
Create opportunities to scare yourself. You may come across opportunities to get out of your comfort zone in the course of your job. More likely, your job is the source of your comfort zone and you’ll have to look outside of it. Volunteer to present something in a forum you are not comfortable with. Raise your hand to lead a cross-functional team on a topic out of your comfort zone. Ask a close colleague or your boss if they see opportunities for you.
Beth realized that new technology scared her. She asked her team to put together a “cool new thing” panel and they did a two-hour lunch session on the latest new ideas. They picked one idea to start implementing, and Beth agreed to support a project testing it. She committed to presenting it to the Executive Committee herself, putting her whole credibility behind it and, not incidentally, forcing her to learn about it and get comfortable with it.